Editorial by BG (ret.) William King

Chairman of the NCT Virtual Hub series

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that biological threats do not respect national borders, treaties, or social/economic status. An infectious disease threat anywhere is a threat everywhere. Over a year into the pandemic, we have all seen first-hand the significant toll that COVID 19 has had on our global society's economic and social structures, including its impact on militaries and defense departments around the world. The COVID 19 pandemic has laid bare the threat infectious diseases pose to economic growth, social programs, and political stability, as well as global security. Yet prior to the emergence of COVID 19, global health experts had encouraged a greater focus on pandemic preparedness, noting the roles conflict, poverty, urbanization, climate change, and even anti-science sentiments play in undermining the progress made in addressing vaccine-preventable diseases and anticipating the emergence of new ones. The response to the COVID 19 pandemic has been characterized both by heightened nationalism and protectionism, along with unprecedented cooperation on science and vaccine research and development. As global COVID 19 immunization efforts accelerate, and equitable access to vaccines becomes central to global recovery, what opportunities are there to re-energize international diplomatic engagement on global health security and pandemic preparedness?

Presently, and historically, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has maintained comprehensive suite of capabilities to counter global threats. These capabilities must continue and improve as technology advances and as threats persist and evolve. DoD, along with numerous United States Government Departments and Agencies, monitors all Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) threats. Expertise is required from across all Department’s and their components to ensure the effective development, integration, and implementation of guidance, analysis, capabilities, and activities. This vast enterprise must work collaboratively and efficiently to prevent the accidental or deliberate release of harmful new Chemical and Biological threats, detect and diagnose naturally or man made outbreaks of security concerns quickly, and respond to and contain effects of those incidents. While the entire WMD threat spectrum requires and has started to receive attention and concern, there are growing concerns regarding new infectious disease and novel chemical threats and their potential impact on U.S. national security and defense interests. This includes the health and operational readiness of U.S. forces, allies, and partners abroad; impairing national security partnerships by producing long-term economic, political, and security destabilization; and diverting attention, resources, and capabilities from long-term strategic defense objectives to meet the immediate needs of an incident.

While the entire WMD threat spectrum requires and has started to receive attention and concern, there are growing concerns regarding new infectious disease and novel chemical threats and their potential impact on U.S. national security and defense interests. This includes the health and operational readiness of U.S. forces, allies, and partners abroad; impairing national security partnerships by producing long-term economic, political, and security destabilization; and diverting attention, resources, and capabilities from long-term strategic defense objectives to meet the immediate needs of an incident. This convergence of traditional health security and biological defense is long overdue and is much needed action. We must continue to monitor, evaluate, and resource the biological and chemical threat reduction enterprise to effectively counter existing and emerging global threats. Next week's forum will explore the emergence of new biological threat landscape, how COVID 19 has impacted its outlook, and the cruciality of preparedness, allies, partners, and international organizations in response, defense against, and resilience efforts.

In an always changing threat landscape, we must position to address a range of biological threats, regardless of how or where they arise. This includes naturally occurring infectious disease outbreaks and accidental or deliberate release of biological threat agents like we will focus in next week's forum; threats posed by State and non-State actors; and potential threats posed by existing and emerging technologies, which hold both promise and peril in their applications. Advances in technologies and synthetic processes have enabled the production of new novel biological materials never achievable in the past. This in of itself is NOT a bad thing as we are today addressing decades old diseases and ailments that could not be cured and are now able to personalize medical treatments regimes but with goodness there is also the potential for the badness.

As we have all experienced and seen with our own eyes, COVID 19 is further altering this threat landscape. The wide-reaching and destabilizing impact that infectious disease outbreaks can and have had on the world may result in greater interest by terrorist organizations in developing or utilizing these kinds of potential weapons. Furthermore, nefarious actors may seek to exploit security vulnerabilities in laboratories currently housing dangerous pathogens to obtain such samples. Adding to this problem is the increasing number of high containment facilities worldwide that house the most dangerous pathogens, some of which lack suitable security measures to protect their pathogen stockpiles. Couple this with the insatiable appetite of budding researchers and scientists to prove they can recreate the extinct diseases and viruses that wiped out certain forms of life without full consideration as to whether our current understanding of containment could actually prevent the accidental or potential deliberate release of those science projects.

While emerging technologies, biotechnologies, in particular, provide unbelievable potential for our economy and global health, they also pose a significant challenge. Like gene editing and synthetic biology, emerging biotechnologies could reduce the barrier to biological weapon development as they become more readily accessible by the general public. Other technologies may pose additional challenges. For example, 3D printing may help facilitate complex, previously costly, and difficult-to-procure equipment necessary for producing new and previous thought unattainable biological agents or deadly pathogens. Furthermore, the inherently dual-use nature of biological and some pharmaceutical chemical capabilities makes countering the proliferation of these novel threats-related technologies, material, and expertise even more challenging.

The U.S. has taken a leading role internationally in reducing the threats of WMDs. Many different parts of U.S. Government Departments spanning services, components, and geographic combatant commands each play a critical function in an integrated system for preventing, mitigating, and responding to biological threats. A critical component of the US’s strategy for countering these new threats is working in close coordination with interagency and international partners. No individual country, department or agency does it alone. It takes strong, durable alliances and partnerships to advance long-term Global and U.S. interests, maintaining favorable balances of power that deter aggression and help lessen the security burden placed on any one nation or Department. Pooling resources and working toward shared objectives for our common defense is paramount to ensuring security and defense interests are met. Continuing to deepen the level of cooperation amongst partner and allied countries on these novel threat reduction activities is critical to achieving threat reduction long-term goals. Looking forward, the collective capabilities and expertise of biological threat reduction-related stakeholders across DoD and with interagency and international allies and partners are essential to addressing the threats of 2021 and beyond. The US will undoubtedly continue working to mitigate the likelihood of and impacts from outbreaks of especially dangerous pathogens—regardless of whether such outbreaks and incidents are naturally occurring or the result of deliberate or accidental release of a biological agent—while at the same time positioning the Department both to utilize emerging technologies and to counter the threats posed by them. In this way, we will continue to play a pivotal role in countering emerging new threats worldwide, including infectious diseases like COVID 19.

Author: BG(R) William King

BG(R) William King has served in a wide variety of command, leadership, and staff positions across numerous levels of the U.S. Army, Joint Task Forces, Regional Commands, and most recently as the Commanding General 20th CBRNE Command before retiring on 19 July 2017 with 30+ years of active duty US Army service. He joined Booz Allen Hamilton in 2017 as an Executive Advisor for the Joint Combatant Commands (JCC) Account and on 12 Oct 2018 was designated as an Industry CWMD Senior Fellow. Today he is a Principal/Director and is responsible for developing the market for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, assessing synchronization and integration, advising senior government clients, and serves as the Booz Allen market lead on challenges/opportunities, and providing strategic thinking for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives (CBRNE) policies, modernization, capability and capacity development. BG(R) King’s expertise, honed through a series of multi-echelon capability and leadership positions, has prepared him to tackle the nation’s most complex CWMD challenges. He is a known luminary and clear leader in the field. He is widely recognized for his breadth of knowledge, experience, and depth of understanding of CWMD challenges. He is skilled at addressing complex problems, is intellectually agile, and is a recognized leader who inspires others and builds teams with ease.